This is the time of year when students are in the process of returning to their many campuses (or going for the first time as Freshers). Cambridge University term starts later than many, and as a result few students are yet back. Consequently, the University has been cramming in, in the diary but not in numbers attending, ceremonies in the Senate House to confer degrees and to celebrate those who took their degrees in absentia last summer. The occasions are not what they would once have been – no proud parents or friends in the Senate House, no clasping of the hands while the degree is conferred – but I hope they still feel like a special occasion. (I wrote about the form of my University’s ceremonies, as indeed other graduation events in which I’ve participated in different guises, in a relatively early post on this blog).

The pandemic has changed everything, across University occasions and well beyond the Senate House. A few people still seem intent on shaking hands in social situations – and I’ve been giving them a metaphorical cold shoulder – but I wonder whether the Cambridge tradition of clasping hands in the Senate House will ever return, although I certainly hope the presence of families will. There are so many aspects of life, traditional customs which may seem totally inappropriate in the future. The Continental way of hugging – be that with two or three pecks on the cheek, I was always confused which to expect from whom – which increasingly seemed to be replacing the cool British handshake, even between academics, seems as unsuitable in these pandemic days as that handshake. I don’t think the bumping of elbows is very likely to catch on, more appropriate though it may currently seem.

I am very conscious of the approaching start of the Cambridge term, with its formal sequence of events, ceremonial and pedagogical, but also looking back, almost with horror, as I realise the 50th anniversary of my own matriculation is fast approaching. While Churchill finesses what new procedure we will follow – not all freshers coming into the Master’s Lodge one after the other and shaking my hand and then my husband’s, while a couple of sentences are exchanged at close range – I try to remember what my own matriculation was like. No formal dinner, it would seem. I’ve found the letter I wrote to my mother all those years ago, and it is not very enthusiastic:

‘I may say the matriculation ceremony was a farce (I didn’t even wear a gown for it – tatty old jeans instead!). It consisted of filing into the praelector’s office and signing our name in two places – one swearing to obey the rules, regulations, ordinances [which I couldn’t spell, getting confused with ordnances] etc, and the other the college register. No pomp and ceremony and not even a glass of port.’

Was I disappointed or relieved? I’m not sure. There is no doubt that too much ceremony can overwhelm freshers who aren’t used to that sort of formality and are convinced they will get things wrong. The matriculation dinner so many colleges – including ours – do have, may simply feel like an opportunity to demonstrate their ignorance by using the wrong knife or putting water in the wine glass. I always feel sorry for those who are placed next to me, in case that makes their anxiousness soar yet higher, although I’ve had some amazing conversations with students who have done phenomenally enterprising things before they left school, or simply thought deeply about the issues that matter to them and which they are keen to discuss.

Nevertheless, myself as a fresher had little positive to say in this same letter about ‘the Mistress’s reception’ (I was at Girton College, then for women only, and which has always had a Mistress).

‘Tonight was the mistress’s reception which was another farce. A sweet looking old woman, who gave the impression of being unused to making speeches and it didn’t really look as if she was going to try to make personal contact with everyone – so we made off.’

Oh dear. Is that how people regard me, sweet and unused to giving speeches? Checking Wikipedia, I see that the said Mistress was rather younger than I am currently so ‘old’ feels, to my present self, very harsh. It is undoubtedly wholesome for me to look back at what a young student may feel about the strange events that greet them when they first arrive in this venerable University. I should remember this! I still have to write this year’s speech for the Fresher’s dinner, but I’ve been getting plenty of practice at giving speeches to other cohorts of students and alumni, so I hope I don’t resemble that ‘old’ Mistress of mine.

It is intriguing to note that, in my next letter home, I refer to being exceedingly exhausted:

‘I have just returned from playing squash for an hour at Churchill. Made a real fool of myself but at least I know better what it entails.’

As far as I recall, that was the only time I set foot in Churchill during the six years I was in Cambridge completing my first and second degrees. I was pleased to note that my opponent from that day came up to me at an alumni event a few years back, remarking (with pride, perhaps?) that he had been the one to introduce me to Churchill. We had not, to my memory, spoken from that squash day to the alumni event; he clearly had not been impressed by my squash-playing skills either. My defence is that it was my first time.

We may all be hoping for an academic year that is closer to the ‘normal’ we used to know. However, I think we also understand that all kinds of differences will assail us, ranging from what incoming students will know, how confident they are and how they settle into a life that is still going to be punctuated by mask-wearing, one-way systems in buildings and – on top of the pandemic fall out – limited food choices in our catering facilities as much as in the supermarkets. It will be a long time before we know what the new normal looks like, and what habits and customs will never return.

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